Reflection by Jim Crissman

As a veterinary pathologist, I’ve had to train the natural human pattern-recognition ability that we all possess for the purpose of discriminating between normal anatomy and hundreds of different disease conditions. Of course humans did not evolve the gift of visual acuity just to find viral inclusions or little bunches of altered cells under the microscope. It developed so that even with stunted human olfactory capabilities we could recognize cavewoman hotties around prehistoric bonfires.

The human mind is exquisitely tuned to recognize the human face. This ability evolved to its zenith during the pre-millennial Fraternity Period, when millions of inebriated college students searched giant football stadiums for their dates. Before the Casual Hookup Era, those who could not recognize the intoxicated person they accompanied to the game lost the opportunity to mate; their genetic material was simply wasted.

This acute ability to find a particular face amid visual chaos has unintended consequences. It has led to crowds of pilgrims trekking to a small kitchen in a remote part of Mexico when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in mildew on the door of an old refrigerator. Similar human stampedes have followed the sightings of the face of Elvis in an Idaho potato, the likeness of Ray Charles in a mole on the rump of a Georgia woman, and yet again when Lady Gaga appeared in a roll of bubble wrap. Russian children still lie on their backs in communal turnip fields and see the bearded face of Karl Marx in clouds scuttling across the sky. An American child spotted Big Bird in mustard squirted on a hotdog bun. Tea Partiers have spotted the figure of Sarah Palin in a voluptuous cumulonimbus cloud, which caused them to flap their arms and attempt to fly up to her. Al Qaeda terrorists strap on suicide vests and fire Kalashnikovs straight up whenever the vaporous forbidden image of Mohammed appears in the desert sky. Faces excite us.

Which is why there was quite a buzz last August near the village of Alaska, Michigan, at the Cowpie Blues Festival (put on by my brother on the farm where we grew up) when a cow produced the face of Merlin the Magician, perfectly sculpted in a brown splatter in the grass of the camping pasture. At first its discoverers kept it secret. They fenced off the miraculous image with a circle of stones and sharp sticks pounded into the ground. Private rituals developed involving sacred herbs. But such a secret cannot be contained, and, inevitably, a photograph was smuggled out. Consequently, now every August thousands of blues fans search the pastoral domain of the revered Angus herd for a new face that will give meaning to their insignificant existence on this third rock from the sun in an outer band of the Milky Way, just one of billions of galaxies in our ever-expanding Universe. And I’ll be looking for your face. Lives will be changed.

For more information, visit Cowpie Blues Festival.

© James W. Crissman, 2011